Forty-one years ago, over nine hundred men, women and children died at the People’s Temple compound in Jonestown, Guyana. Their charismatic and paranoid leader, Jim Jones (1931-1978), died of a gunshot wound to the head, avoiding the lethal liquid concoction given to a majority of his followers. Disturbingly, many of the deaths were not in fact suicide, but outright murder. Children and infants were forced to ingest the deadly brew that took their lives in a matter of minutes. The events of November 18, 1978, concluded the final tragic chapter in Jones’ tyrannical reign.
Earlier in the day on November 18, Congressman Leo Ryan (1925-1978) and a group composed of staff and reporters, were preparing to leave the Jonestown compound with defectors that had come to despise Jones and his lunacy. Many Temple members knew early on that something was not right about Jones and his continuing descent into madness raised their suspicions and confirmed their belief that they had to leave before it was too late. As the group prepared to board the plane for the short flight to capital of Georgetown, shots rang out on the air strip. Five people, including Ryan were killed and nine others would seriously wounded. Among them was Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-California). She sustained five bullet wounds but miraculously survived the attack. Her experience at the Jonestown and the death of Ryan, compelled her to enter a life of politics. This is her story of Jim Jones, U.S. Politics and all that life has to offer.
I should point out that the book is not solely about Jonestown. In fact, the events there compose only a section in the book. Readers looking for a more focused discussion Jones and his following will like Tim Reiterman’s Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and His People. This is primarily a biography but undoubtedly, the attack permanently changed her life, leaving her with physical and emotional scars will never completely heal. Her early life is typical of the average American girl growing up in the 1950s. But as she gets older, she comes into her own as a teenager and decides to apply for a position on Ryan’s staff. To her surprise she is accepted and embarks on a path that would take her all the way to Washington, D.C.
Jones eventually enters the picture as Ryan becomes more concerned with reports filtering in from those desperate to leave Jonestown and others who have already departed. Jones’ decision to move the People’s Temple, allowed him to evade the eyes of reporters, law enforcement and elected officials. Its remote location in the jungles, added a valued layer of secrecy that prevent prying eyes from observing Temple activities. Ryan is determined to see Jonestown for himself and Speier is right by his side to provide legal advice and offer support to those who are determined to leave. The group eventually arrives in Guyana but is forced to wait several days before being allowed into Jonestown. Once they are admitted, Speier quickly realizes that there is a dark cloud hovering over the compound and that her group is in grave danger if they continue to stay. Ryan had seen enough to know that Jonestown was not what Jones had claimed it to be. The congressman was attacked himself while conducting interviews with various Temple members. The group’s departure, scheduled for November 18, came a little too late; Jones had made his final descent into the depths of hell.
She recalls the story of her will to survive and the grueling medical treatment she received during her recovery. Her path was a long process, requiring multiple surgeries and extensive therapy . However, she never quits and incredibly jumps into politics not long after being discharged from the hospital. The damage caused by the bullets was extensive and physically she found her herself challenged, but she does her best during her campaigns and success eventually came over time. All of the highs and lows are discussed, showing the tenacity and devotion of Speier to effecting real change in America.
And as if Jonestown was not enough, her private life is also a roller coaster ride and to say that she has been through a lot would be a severe understatement. At times, I was literally in shock at everything she has had to endure, even after being shot several times. Perhaps another person would have broken down for good but Speier does not give up and keeps moving forward even in the face of unrelenting adversity. Her drive and determination will certainly inspire every reader. And by the end of the book, you might find yourself in awe of her unwavering spirit and commitment to her beliefs.
The book is a bit short and I wish it had been longer. But in this case, it is quality over quantity. I truly enjoyed reading it and have a new found understanding and respect for Congresswoman Speier. Highly recommended.